Twenty-five years ago today, California enacted first-in-the-nation legislation legalizing the use and cultivation of medical cannabis.
Fifty-six percent of California voters decided on November 5, 1996 in favor of the ballot measure Proposition 215: The California Compassionate Use Act. It took effect the following day. The measure’s enactment met with immediate pushback from state and federal officials, including former California Attorney General Dan Lungren, former White House Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey, and the US Department of Justice — which unsuccessfully tried to intimidate physicians who recommended that their patients use marijuana in accordance with the law. Nonetheless, in the years immediately afterward, voters in a number of other states — including Alaska (1998), Maine (1999), Oregon (1998), and Washington (1998) decided in favor of similar policies at the ballot box, and in 2000 Hawaii lawmakers became the first to legalize medical cannabis access legislatively.
In 2003, the United States Supreme Court rejected an appeal by the federal government that sought to limit physicians’ abilities to make medical marijuana authorizations. The Court’s actions made it clear that doctors may not be punished for recommending marijuana. Ten years later, the Obama administration issued a memorandum stating that the Justice Department would not prosecute state-authorized marijuana-related activities. The following year, Congress for the first time passed a budgetary amendment barring the federal government from interfering in state-authorized medical cannabis access. That amendment remains in place today.
A decade-and-a-half later, the majority of US states now regulate the production and distribution of medical cannabis products. Tens of millions of Americans use cannabis for therapeutic reasons, and over 90 percent of voters endorse medical cannabis legalization. National survey data compiled recently by the US Centers for Disease Control finds that the use of medical marijuana is also widely popular among practicing physicians – with over two-thirds acknowledging its efficacy and over one-quarter admitting having recommended it to their patients. A key word search on PubMed, the repository for peer-reviewed research, now identifies thousands of studies documenting cannabis’ efficacy in various patient populations — most of which have been published just within the past two decades.
In 2012, voters in Colorado and Washington became the first to approve broader statewide initiatives legalizing the adult-use marijuana market. Sixteen additional states have since followed suit, including five states this year alone.
Arguably, none of these political, cultural, and scientific advancements would have been possible without the success of California’s 1996 campaign and the efforts of those activists who worked so hard for the law’s passage a quarter of a century ago.
Additional information is available from California NORML.